Everything you wanted to know about harness replacement

It’s hard to say what the most important piece of personal protection equipment (PPE) is. Failure of any one piece can be disastrous. Climbing is about managing risk anytime you get a few feet off the ground. It is vital to understand your gear and ensure that it is in safe working condition. This article is the second of three articles I will be doing on gear replacement. You can read about when to replace your climbing rope here and keep your eye out for the next article on quickdraws, carabiners, webbing and slings.

I feel like harnesses get glossed over when you talk about gear replacement because the majority of attention is focused on rope condition. The fact that Todd Skinner died as a result of a belay loop failure drives home the importance of this piece of gear. The most important take away message for checking your PPE is “when in doubt retire it.” It’s better to be $50 poorer than to end up in the hospital which, if you are from the U.S. will likely cost you orders of magnitude more than $50.

Our Experience

After storing our climbing gear in a Bangkok hotel for six weeks we returned to find our harness buckles had rusted and had peeling paint. I don’t know how likely it is that the rust would have compromised the structural integrity of the buckle but we weren’t willing to risk it. So we retired them.

rusty-buckleWe sent a picture of the buckles to the manufacturer (Singing Rock) and they requested we send them for strength testing. We were happy to oblige, and they offered to give us a new harness in return. We haven’t seen any test results yet but we’ll report back if/when we do. You can read Singing Rock’s recommendations about harness inspection and maintenance here. The bottom line is 5 years max life of their harnesses and 2 years of regular use.

Manufacturer Recommendations

There are a ton of harness makers out there and it is beyond the scope of my research to effectively link to all of them. I looked at the manufactures for harnesses we have owned, namely Black Diamond, Petzl, and Singing Rock. Always consult your harness manufacturer for specific recommendations for the life of your harness and how to check its condition.

I replaced my Singing Rock harness with the Petzl Sama harness. Petzl has great resources for checking your PPE. There is a website here with a tutorial on checking virtually every piece of gear Petzl makes. The nice thing about these tutorials is that it applies to just about every brand of gear. So for many of your questions on what retirement worthy wear looks like you will have to look no further.

There is so much information on this website including inspection forms and downloads with detailed instructions for PPE checking. No hard and fast useful life rules that I could find, basically check well and often and if you sustain a fall of factor one or greater retire every piece of gear involved. There could be subsurface damage invisible to the naked eye that can compromise the integrity of your gear.

Briana replaced her harness with a Black Diamond. A PDF of Black Diamonds harness instructions can be found below. Black Diamond suggests the useful life of a harness is:

“approximately three years, and can be longer or shorter depending on how frequently you use it and on the conditions of its use. Even if a harness has been properly stored for ten years or more, retire it.”

One of the nice things about finding information on Black Diamonds site is you just have to navigate to the gear in question. From there they link to a pdf of the instructions/care information on the page. Here is a link (PDF) to the instructions for their harnesses

Harness and Belay Loop Safety

belay-loopsThrough my research I found a couple interesting articles about strength testing of harnesses in various venues. Rock and Ice did a study of used and retired harnesses contributed by readers. This is certainly worth a read if for nothing more than a reality check about what you are using. I was shocked to see people send in harnesses they deemed unfit to use themselves but had no problem putting on a friend. No hard and fast conclusions were drawn but the take away message is if it looks bad throw it away, and if you wouldn’t use it would you give it to your friends to use?

The death of Todd Skinner prompted many companies to conduct strength tests of belay loops to see just how far they would go before breaking. Wild country has a video of belay loop strength tests under various stresses here. They also have a PDF of the testing methods and other stress test results here. You can see a selection of the pictures from their study to the right. The big take away message from the study is that “the belay loop is an incredibly strong part of a harness and a very strong part of the whole climbing ‘system’. It should still be trusted.” And as the major underlying theme of gear replacement they remind us that “if you are in doubt about any piece it is best to retire it.”

Black Diamond QC labs has another good article about belay loop breaking points here. This is a similar study to the Wild Country one above.

In spite of all the tests done there is still no definitive way to determine if your harness should be retired. After testing belay loops simulating different types of stress the conclusion is “belay loops are burly – really burly.” The final word on the matter as quoted from the link above:

“When in doubt, retire it—because the last thing you want to be thinking of in the back of your mind when you’re 20 feet above your last piece of sketchy gear is… “geez, I wonder if that’s that biner that I dropped that time,” or “I sure hope my harness is in good enough shape to withstand this monster whipper I’m about to take.” It’s not worth having to worry about—I personally have a hard enough time worrying about trying NOT to fall…”

Keep an eye out for the next post when we go over quickdraws, carabiners, webbing and slings.

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